Hillsborough's internal performance audit office loses support

TAMPA — The idea was simple: create an independent Hillsborough County office to analyze whether county programs serve the public effectively.

Supporters said the internal performance auditor would pay for itself and then some by recommending ways to make government more efficient. Hillsborough residents voted overwhelmingly to create the post in 2002.

Now even some of its initial backers say concerns that the office would only grow and be used as a political tool have been realized under current auditor Jim Barnes. They say there is little to show it has served taxpayers well, let alone saved money.

"It is becoming apparent that some of the worst fears of opponents of the position have materialized," said Commission Chairman Ken Hagan. "The concern was that it would be used for witch hunts.

"It appears this position is being used more for individual commissioners' requests than what the job was created to do."

Consider:

• Far more performance audits were done in Hills­borough County before the position was created. Seven were commissioned in 1995 alone, while Barnes and his predecessor have completed only three since the office started operating six years ago.

• The office has grown from a one-person operation to four people. Its nearly $500,000 budget is about the same as what the county paid outside firms in 1995 to get those seven audits.

• The auditor's work has been steered by individual commissioners who have directed the office to investigate pet grievances. Their instructions have sent the auditor delving into the work of other governments, including the agencies that oversee county transit and taxis.

• There is no evidence that audits completed so far have saved the county a dime.

Barnes, 61, faces his second annual evaluation Wednesday, having attracted more attention for seeking pay raises and taking a taxpayer-funded training trip to Las Vegas than for his work.

He said he understands some of the criticism. But he said he has simply been responsive to county commissioners, to whom he reports. At best, he said, he can't do more than two audits a year without a bigger staff.

Barnes said he has gotten little direction from the full commission on how it would like him to spend his time. Though he provides them a work plan, commissioners often give him other tasks that take him off track.

He said part of his challenge may stem from misconceptions about performance auditing. The point, he said, is to suggest ways government can do a better job, whether it's building bike paths or getting stray cats adopted, not necessarily just to save money.

"It's been a struggle in a lot of ways in terms of what the board expects of this office," Barnes said. "They can get rid of me, but if they bring in someone else, they're going to have the same problem."

• • •

The auditor post was the brainchild of the late Ralph Hughes, a wealthy activist who railed against government waste and contributed heavily to political campaigns. Hughes sold the job as a money saver.

The county pays for a variety of traditional audits each year. They help ensure that the county keeps proper track of how it spends taxpayer money and complies with the law and County Commission policies.

A performance audit is different. It is meant to more deeply probe into whether county employees are doing their job well. As Hughes sold it, the auditor would ferret out inefficiency.

As Barnes puts it: "I look to see if we're getting the best bang for our buck."

While the county used performance audits before, they were overseen by the county administrator. Hughes and others saw that as a conflict and argued audits needed to be handled independently.

Hughes won support from the Charter Review Board, a panel convened every five years to consider changes to county governance. It recommended commissioners put the issue to voters.

"It was a good idea," said David Hurley, a Charter Review Board member. "In reality, I don't think it's panned out the way we had hoped."

Former court clerk Richard Ake and Hurley helped commissioners shape the auditor's job duties. From the beginning, Ake said, commissioners had varying ideas of what the office would do.

They ultimately voted to make it a one-person shop. That person would help the commission set a schedule of audits, pick outside firms to do them and validate the results.

"Commissioners didn't want it to have a staff," Ake said. "They kind of made it have to be that kind of position."

In between, the auditor would serve as a budget analyst helping commissioners vet the county administrator's spending plan.

The first person hired, Kathleen Mathews, told commissioners she couldn't find qualified firms to do the work cost-effectively. She argued that, with a small staff, she could do the audits better and cheaper.

Mathews won permission to hire three people. While she tried to set a schedule of audits, commissioners repeatedly knocked her off track. They had her look into why the county had so many temp workers and sicced her on Hillsborough Area Regional Transit, the county bus agency, among other tasks.

She completed one full-scale audit, of the county's building services division, which handles construction permits and is a favorite whipping boy of commissioners. Mathews resigned after receiving poor reviews of her management ability by commissioners.

Barnes, her successor, quickly voiced the same view as Mathews about hiring outside firms. Like Mathews, he said prior audits weren't up to snuff.

"They weren't really performance audits," he said.

As with Mathews, Barnes has struggled to stick to a work plan. His changes with each iteration, as commissioners assign him other tasks.

When commissioners came under fire for proposing to eliminate wetlands protections, they loosed Barnes on the Environmental Protection Commission. His limited review concluded the agency did a poor job of tracking how many wetlands it had saved, which environmentalists dismissed as impossible to know.

Along the way, commissioners have sent Barnes to look into the Public Transportation Commission and more recently the Children's Board, both outside agencies.

"I've long felt that this is an office that no one understood," said Commissioner Mark Sharpe, who pleads guilty to having Barnes look at the Children's Board. "I do believe ultimately for that office to work, I don't want to say you grow government, but you've got to bring in more people."

Barnes has finished two full-scale audits. One dealt with the Planning and Growth Management Department and was started under his predecessor. The other, on the county's affordable housing office, earned him criticism when he released preliminary findings that were incorrect.

Indeed, most of the attention Barnes has received has been unwanted. He twice sought large pay increases before completing his first audit, saying he wasn't fairly compensated in his initial contract. (He makes about $113,000 a year.)

But he was also unemployed before he was hired, having been fired from his prior job at the Florida Department of Health in what he characterizes as a disagreement with his boss. He also spent seven years, from 1994 to 2001, out of auditing, working part of that time in car sales.

Part of his justification for attending a recent conference in Las Vegas was to get face time with the keynote speaker, George Burgess, the county manager from Miami-Dade County. That didn't sit well with Commissioner Rose Ferlita, who suggested he should have driven to Miami.

"I just think he's not following his job description," Ferlita said. "I'm not happy with his performance."

Barnes said he is eager to hear from commissioners how they would like to see him spend his time. He said he welcomes the feedback and loves his job, which he said gives him an opportunity to make the community better.

Commissioner Al Higginbotham says the board perhaps can do a better job at spelling out expectations for Barnes.

"I think we need to be more clear in our instructions," he said.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

Hillsborough's internal performance audit office loses support 04/11/09 [Last modified: Saturday, April 11, 2009 10:37pm]

    

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